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Cities Can't Seize and Destroy Homeless Population's Possessions

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

You know that saying, “Don’t kick a man while he’s down”? Apparently, the City of Los Angeles doesn’t. The City, it seems, has been seizing and destroying Skid Row homeless individuals’ momentarily-unattended personal possessions while the owners attend to “necessary tasks, such as eating, showering, and using restrooms.”

That’s not cool.

No, really. It’s unconstitutionally not cool. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that cities cannot seize and destroy unabandoned property that homeless people temporarily leave on the sidewalks, Los Angeles Times reports.

On separate occasions between February 6, 2011 and March 17, 2011, the homeless plaintiffs in this case stepped away from their personal property, leaving it on the sidewalks, to perform necessary tasks. They had not abandoned their property, but City employees nonetheless seized and summarily destroyed mobile shelters and carts.

According to court records, the City did not have a good-faith belief that the possessions were abandoned when it destroyed them. On a number of the occasions when the City seized possessions, the owners and other persons were present, explained to City employees that the property was not abandoned, and implored the City not to destroy it.

Nine of the affected individuals sued, claiming the City permanently deprived them of possessions ranging from personal identification documents and family memorabilia to portable electronics, blankets, and shelters. Finding a strong likelihood of success on the merits of these claims, the district court enjoined the City from confiscating and summarily destroying unabandoned property in Skid Row. The injunction bars the City from:

  1. Seizing property in Skid Row, absent an objectively reasonable belief that it is abandoned, presents an immediate threat to public health or safety, or is evidence of a crime, or contraband; and
  2. Absent an immediate threat to public health or safety, destruction of said seized property without maintaining it in a secure location for a period of less than 90 days.

The City, however, maintained that its seizure and disposal of items is authorized pursuant to its enforcement of Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) § 56.11, an ordinance that provides that "no person shall leave or permit to remain any merchandise, baggage or any article of personal property upon any parkway or sidewalk."

Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the 2-1 majority, "The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments protect homeless persons from government seizure and summary destruction of their unabandoned, but momentarily unattended, personal property."

Judge Consuelo Callahan dissented, writing, "Common sense and societal expectations suggest that when people leave their personal items unattended in a public place, they understand that they run the risk of their belongings being searched, seized, disturbed, stolen, or thrown away."

Who do you think reached the right conclusion? Judge Wardlaw or Judge Callahan?

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